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Israel vs Iran: breaking the status quo

American media outlets, relying on sources at the Pentagon and in Israel, and free of the restrictions of Israeli censorship, are gradually allowing the public to understand the nature of the Iranian military installation that was hit early Friday morning near the city of Isfahan.

This was an aerial defense radar, part of a system of Russian S-300 surface-to-air missiles meant to assist in securing several critical sites associated with Iran's nuclear program. The fact that this was a focused and limited airstrike now allows the regime in Tehran to pretend that nothing happened.

This was a good way of ending a dangerous and unprecedented round of blows exchanged by Iran and Israel, but it leaves the balance of deterrence between the two countries unsettled and beset by hefty question marks: What will happen next time there is a flare-up?

Will Israel hesitate, for example, to carry out further assassinations of senior Iranian figures or attacks against Revolutionary Guards bases in Syria lest Iran again launch hundreds of missiles and drones at Israel in response?

Did Iran receive a sufficiently strong message that an attack on Israel is a total crossing of a red line as far as Israel is concerned? The two countries breached the previous rules of the game, with limited costs, as they view it. These developments do not augur well for what may transpire down the road.

The radar that was hit belongs to a defensive network protecting the nuclear installation in Natanz, located 120 kilometers (74.5 miles) away, as well as protecting a nearby facility for enriching uranium, situated in Isfahan itself.

The New York Times reported that drones were used in the attack alongside missiles launched by Israeli warplanes that didn't enter Iran's airspace. There was also a second attack, launched in parallel, against an Iranian air defense base in Syria. Other reports suggesting attacks against further military targets turned out to be wrong.

Israel has not published any official statement taking responsibility for the attacks. American media outlets have published statements from anonymous Israeli sources confirming that Israel was behind them.

This is also evident in the dismissive comments made by the most extreme cabinet member, Itamar Ben-Gvir, on his X account. Ben-Gvir is mainly concerned with political juggling vis-à-vis Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but overseas, his tweet was considered an indirect taking of responsibility.

Israel has not resorted to airstrikes on Iranian soil very much until now. Two years ago, there were reports in the foreign media suggesting that an Iranian factory producing drones in the city of Kermanshah had been destroyed in a drone attack attributed to Israel. Over the years there were also many assassinations in Iran that were attributed to Israel, mainly of senior figures who were connected to Iran's nuclear program.

However, Friday's attack cannot be dissociated from 15 years of reported Israeli preparations for attacking sites associated with Iran's nuclear program. Whereas Iran's attack was foiled, with the assistance of Western and regional allies, the attack attributed to Israel was successful.

If it was carried out by Israel, it proved Israel's ability to penetrate Iran's reinforced aerial defense systems and hit a specific target with great precision. It seemed like an attempt to deliver a dual message: First, this was a response to Iran's extraordinary drone and missile attack. Second, it served as a reminder that Israel, if it decides to do so, is also capable of seriously harming Iran's nuclear program.

It's not certain that Iran will interpret things the way Israel would like it to. Senior Revolutionary Guard officials have already hinted that their country was considering a breakout toward full, declared nuclear capabilities, following a year in which renewed progress in that direction was evident.

According to The New York Times, Israel's attack may spur an Iranian decision to better protect nuclear sites by upgrading its aerial defense systems and moving additional nuclear capabilities deeper underground, as well as placing further restrictions over external monitoring by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

One should also note the repercussions of the regional escalation for Jordan. The Jordanian air force took part in the interception of drones launched from Iran at Israel, on the grounds that they had breached Jordan's airspace.

This drew threats from Tehran, which in any case has been meddling in Jordan's affairs, trying to undermine the royal family's rule. The tension comes on top of increasing demonstrations by the Muslim Brothers against King Abdullah II, demanding that he abrogate Jordan's peace treaty with Israel due to the war in Gaza.

It appears that the latest attack highlights the current gap in Iran's and Israel's abilities to carry out precise hits. This does not mean that Iran is necessarily deterred. If the attack was indeed carried out by Israel, one may assume that it was preceded by days of deliberation by Israel's political and military leaders.

It's fair to assume that Netanyahu's position ultimately prevailed, likely after taking into consideration American reservations. The Biden administration doubtlessly wanted to end this exchange of blows and return to a policy of containment.

Israel will try to extract payment from the Americans for this, expressed as pressure for more determined diplomatic and economic sanctions against Iran.

Sanctions against the Iranian regime have weakened considerably in recent years, as it was continuing to advance its nuclear program and assisting terror across the Middle East. From time to time, plans for terror attacks in Western countries have also been revealed, targeting mainly regime opponents who have found asylum there.

Even if the anticipated containment is now achieved, it seems that what will be remembered of April's incidents in this part of the world is that Iran broke loose from its strategy of many years in a fundamental way, choosing to carry out a direct and extensive attack on Israel.

It's still too early to know if this was a temporary excursion or as reasonable fears suggest, that this indicates a more extensive inflection point. The situation in the Middle East is still highly dangerous. Any further developments, similar to what happened over the last three weeks will bring us closer to the brink of an all-out regional war. The end is not yet in sight for other campaigns Israel is embroiled, neither in Gaza, in Lebanon nor in the West Bank.

Russian propaganda

Last week, Haaretz reported some assessments made by Western sources that Russia actively encouraged Iran's attack on Israel as part of Moscow's overall strategy of making things difficult for Western countries and obliging them to devote attention and resources to other areas of conflict at the expense of aid they provide to Ukraine.

Meanwhile, the Washington Post published a classified document which the paper says was given to it by a European spy agency. The document, formulated by the Russian Foreign Ministry, describes plans for weakening America's international status while utilizing the war in Ukraine for consolidating a new world order, released from American dominance.

The document, which was written last April, calls for conducting an "offensive information campaign" as well as for taking other steps against the United States and its allies.

According to the Post, this document bolsters assessments that observers in Moscow have been making for a long time: The regime of President Vladimir Putin is conducting a "hybrid war" against the West, aimed at sabotaging its support for Ukraine while undermining the stability of the U.S. and other European countries, using propaganda and encouragement for extremist and separatist elements there.

These moves are connected to the tightening of relations between Russia and China, Iran and North Korea, in an attempt to change the balance of forces facing the West. Israel is in a unique position here, since on one hand it is threatened by this coalition, while on the other the West has reservations about its moves in Gaza.

The Russian Foreign Ministry responded to a query by the Post, saying that it does not comment "on the existence or nonexistence of internal ministry documents."

"As we have stated several times on different levels, we can confirm the mood is to decisively combat the aggressive steps taken by the collective West as part of the hybrid war launched against Russia," the ministry said.

In the year that has passed since this document was written, another basic component in the state of the world has changed in a manner that encourages Russia: the not insignificant chance that come November, Donald Trump will become the president of the U.S.

Amos Harel